Punished for praying in Boston

By Jeff Jacoby

The Boston Globe, August 19, 1999

The City of Boston is shocked — shocked! — to find praying going on at the Keys of Life Bible School. And not only praying, but Bible reading. And as if those weren’t bad enough, there are religious emblems in plain view — crosses and spiritual posters right out in the open where anyone might see them.

This is intolerable, the city says, and Keys of Life must be punished.

Keys of Life is a summer day camp run by the Mason Cathedral Church in Dorchester. It is a modest operation — a large room in the church’s lower level outfitted with tables and chairs, a few computers, a pile of books, and a large-screen TV. The church has no athletic facilities of its own, but Franklin Field, a public park, is just down the street. As camps go, it isn’t much. But it’s run by people who care deeply about their community, and it helps keep 30 city kids, many from homes with no fathers and few luxuries, off the streets and out of trouble.

The doors open at 7:30 every morning; some children don’t leave until 6:30 p.m. Most of those 11 hours are taken up with physical activities and recreation — swimming, drawing, ballplaying, video watching. But the first order of business every day is a few minutes of devotion and Bible study. The children usually recite the Lord’s Prayer. Sometimes a child mentions that he is praying about something specific — a lost pet, a sick grandmother. “Mostly,” says Kenya Cross, who directs Keys of Life, “we ask God to let us make it through each day in peace. And He does.”

Now that peace has been torn.

Late last month the camp’s seven teenage counselors, participants in a federally funded summer jobs program, were yanked from Keys of Life and sent elsewhere. City officials accuse the church of asking the counselors to pray, in “direct violation” of the federal Job Training Partnership Act, which pays for the summer jobs. But that law merely requires that participants not be employed “on the construction, operation, or maintenance” of a place of worship. That restriction has never posed a problem for Keys of Life; its counselors spend their day taking care of kids, not building churches.

Indeed, the camp has repeatedly been praised by Action for Boston Community Development, the agency that administers the jobs program.

“For five years they’ve been saying I do good work,” says the Rev. Thomas Cross, Kenya’s father and the pastor of Mason Cathedral. “This year, everything changed.”

On July 15, ABCD sent a letter to Mason Cathedral, warning the church not to involve the counselors in “religious activities.”

“These include but are not limited to the following: praying, reading Bible stories, drawing Bible pictures, and cleaning in the areas of the church where there are religious symbols. . . . All religious activities must cease immediately.”

To Rev. Cross and his daughter, this was preposterous. Ban prayer at a church-run summer camp? But the city was adamant. Larry Smith, the official who supervises ABCD’s operation of the summer program, came to the church to insist that the Crosses toe the line.

“He sat right here in my office,” Cross says in amazement, “and told me, `My job is to make sure those kids don’t pray.”’ According to Cross, Smith also told him to remove any religious symbols visible to the children — including the crucifix on the pastor’s door.

“I told him I’ve got two Stars of David and the Ten Commandments on the facade of the church,” Cross relates. (The building used to be a synagogue.) “He said, `They’ll have to come down, too.’ Well, I am not tearing down my church.”

The city isn’t budging, either. When it isn’t claiming erroneously that its hands are tied by the Job Training Partnership Act, it is pointing to the Constitution.

“There is a total separation of church and state in this country,” Constance Doty, director of the city’s Office of Jobs and Community Services, told The Boston Globe last week. “This program is funded with federal dollars, and it’s very clear that the youths . . . cannot participate in religious or political activity.”

But there isn’t a total separation of church and state in America, and there never has been. God is mentioned four times in the Declaration of Independence. Congress hires chaplains, as do most state legislatures and the military. Presidents take the oath of office with a hand on the Bible. Every piece of US currency proclaims, “In God We Trust.” By law, the pledge to the flag includes the words “one nation under God.”

The Constitution says nothing about a “separation of church and state.” The words come from a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1802 to the Danbury Baptist Association. The Baptists had suffered much persecution, and Jefferson wanted to reassure them that under the First Amendment, the government had no authority to hinder or control their activities.

Nothing in the First Amendment requires pastors to take down the crucifix from their office door or bars teen-agers from helping kids say a brief morning prayer. The federal dollars that paid the Keys of Life counselors were not being used to promote religion. They were being used to enable a humble summer camp to provide a safe summer haven in a neighborhood that badly needs such havens.

Will nobody reverse this decision? The kids at Mason Cathedral still say their prayers, but they miss their counselors.